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15 October 2014
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My Life - Born in 1918, then a Soldier in WW2 - Part 2

by robert beesley

Contributed by 
robert beesley
People in story: 
Corporal Benham, Corporal Norris,other Prisoners-of-War
Location of story: 
France, Belgium, Holland and St Valery. Also Germany
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A3431314
Contributed on: 
21 December 2004

There were 250 officers and other ranks that had been taken as Prisoners-of-War, these were what remained of the 51st Highland Division plus there were others of the British Force, that was in the area of St Valery. The French were leading the long column, leaving St Valery. We had been disarmed by the German soldiers. They had taken our jewellery, such as rings and watches from all of the Prisoners-of-War and we had no money as we had not received any pay.
We were all hungry as we had not had any food for a day and a half. As we walked along in the column, our thoughts were, what did the future hold for us now? As we walked there were men that had fallen back, I found myself with Corporal Benham and Corporal M Norris. As we followed along the road,which was full of walking soldiers, our thoughts were of our families at home. How were they coping with the War and all of our friends. What now would happen to the British and French Officers that was not on the line of march. We did not know for sure what had happened to these men. The men were hoping to get some food when we reached the Camp, the weather was very hot, a real June summer day. Just the right day for a lovely swim! We were all sweating, it must have been about 7.00p.m. to 8.00p.m. when we eventually reached the holding Camp. Then we were treated just like cattle, we were herded along the road. We then found ourselves in an open field with barbed wire and German guards outside watching over us. We had water but no food. A senior N.C.O. approached the guards and said how about having any food and the reply came back in German, saying "Do not understand".
It was the 15 June 1940 and the third day of the march. Some of the lads had fallen to the rear, they thought it was better because we were all after food. We passed through a village and the French had put out buckets of water and some did give us food, but even then, we still had to watch it because of the German guards. we passed German troops moving down the front, horses and carts and a Field Kitchen was cooking food for the German troops. We began to break ranks in order to try and get some food. We ate dandelion leaves which tasted like lettuce. Ted Benham had stolen a chicken and we found potatoes in a field growing so we pulled them up and ate the potatoes raw also there were swedes, which had been put out for the cattle, but we ate these as well, raw. We collected stinging nettles, but we kept these, together with the chicken, so that we would then cook them together with any thing else that we could find.
Now the British Prisoners-of-War were pitting their wits against the Germans, we may only be Prisoners-of-War and we were feeling down but we were not finished yet!
Every day it was the same, we would try to break ranks or we would starve!. We had been on the march for nearly a week, but on this morning before we left the Camp, we were told by a N C O that the Germans were fed up, by the action of us breaking ranks. We were told that we were soldiers and had to act as soldiers and not to continue this action of breaking ranks. It was on 19 June 1940, we were told that the N C O would lead the British column and we were told to either march or walk but to follow this
N C O. For a time we did not break ranks but we had noticed that the men, who was helping the N C O at night, in the Camp and sharing with whatever they got, heard that they broke ranks. They had had the fields and farm yards all to themselves, so it became that either we starved or tried to live as best as we could.
So it was now back to normal, you just had to grab what you could to survive. After about ten days without food from the Germans, the men came to the conclusion that the Germans never had the food to give to us, the Prisoners-of-War.
We were being treated worse than cattle, we even tried to eat grass. We were back to the same routine, breaking ranks, go thieving for what we could. Ted Benham had a bad throat and Norris had told him to drink plenty of water.In front of us were four Morroccan soldiers, one was carrying a sack, it smelt really bad. We held our noses because of the smell. A guard approached us and he must have smelt this so he took out a pocket knife and he cut the sack open. What fell out was a horse's head! As it fell to the floor all that we could see that it was alive with maggots. The guard went mad and the Moroccan soldiers ran for their lives.
The French people tried to help as much as they could, but we had to live and the only way to do that was to raid the fields. Ted had stolen another chicken so now we had to find swedes or potatoes or stinging nettles. we also had to get wood for the fire, wood was not a problem to find as the weather had been kind. that night we had chicken stew. There had been no rain but plenty of sunshine. It was still a beautiful summer, but always in out thoughts was of home and our families back in England.
We were told that we were getting near to Belgium. We had lost all sense of time, we did not know the days or the dates, we had been too busy looking for food to help us to survive.
As we entered Belgium finding what to eat was getting harder, we never saw anyone smile. We did get some food, but there was too many of us to feed. The French had plenty of food in their back packs. We met some Nuns, they asked for some of our names and addresses. They told us that they would try and let our families know where we were. Ted Norris and myself wrote our names on a packet of Woodbines. We had run out of cigarettes and tobacco, I still had my pipe, which I would put in my mouth, it helped a little although I had no tobacco to go into it. We could still see the German Troops making their way to France. Whenever we could get food from the fields we did or on the wayside. To think that we had come all of this way from St Valery and had not been given any food. we were now sure that the Germans had no food to give to the Prisoners-of-War, they had too many to cater for. Also they did not care if we lived or died. When we arrived at the holding Camp, men asked for medical treatment for different ailments but they received none. We had heard that the fighting in France was now over. Our thoughts went out, had the Germans reached England? One lad had asked a Belgium if he had heard if the Germans had reached England, he replied "No, and they never will" laughing as he walked off.
We were now approaching Holland and as we walked along the road, we noticed a dog that had been harnessed to a cart. Some had bread, some had Red balls of Cheese called Edam. These were for sale as was the bread. Ted and Norris got two loaves of bread. they had said to the Dutchman "I will get the money" but they vanished into the long columns along with their cheeses. I did the same and that night we exchanged bread for cheeses.
Since 12 June 1940, we had received no food from the Germans, we had now reached Holland and some of the lads were missing, either they were in hospital or they were still walking at the rear of the column. Day in and day out it was the same old routine, march all day with no food, only what the French people had given us. It was the same in Belgium as we travelled through it was just the same.
We thought, what is wrong on this particular night when we stopped, we were not going into a field this time but we found ourselves being put into a warehouse. Some went into a large Barracks. This night we slept under cover for the first time.
I heard someone say that "it is 2 July", it was a Saturday when we arrived at the Hook of Holland.One could see barges tied up to a jetty. The French were being loaded on to one of the barges and the British on to another. As we boarded the barge we were given a slice of dark bread, not enough to feed a child, but we took it. When the barges were loaded they pulled away from the jetty and started upstream. We heard we were now on the Rhine. It was either a Tuesday or Wednesday, the barge had been tied up at the jetty. We noticed others had followed. The barges was unloaded and we found ourselves climbing into cattle wagons. We were there a day and one night. The train stopped at Dortmund and the train was unloaded at the Railway station. We were then paraded through the streets of Dortmund. One could not see any Germans with smiles on their faces but you could see the hatred. otherwise it was a penny for your thoughts time.
We arrived at Dortmund Sports centre and it looked like an open field surrounded by barb wire. On the other side of the barb wire was steel Army helmets of the French, British and Belgiums. The guard was wandering alone, like a little dolly daydream, with not a care in the world. With his rifle and bayonet he was piercing the helmets with the bayonet. Each helmet the bayonet pierced , he went to each French, Belgium and British and he seemd very pleased with the results, until he cam to an old looking British helmet, that belonged to the Regular Army had. He tried a number of times and nothing happened. he must have tried a little bit harder because then the bayonet broke off at the hilt. You should have seen his face, it was full of bewilderment. One great cheer went up from all of the Prisoners-of-War.
We did not know how long we were to stay at Dortmund. We had received some soup or that is what the Germans called it! To me it was dish water and it looked like washing up water. Turning it over in one's mind, the events from 12 June 1940, the long march with no food, I began to look at how we, the Prisoners-of-War had been treated. None of the Prisoners-of-War had been documented, so far as the British knew we could all been killed in action, even the Germans could have shot all of the British Prisoners-of-War and said that we had died in action. Who would have disputed that? Twice we received this dishwater as soup. On the third day we were marched down to the goods yard and we were handed a slice of brown bread. Once again, we were loaded onto cattle wagons. there were 80 men to each wagon and once again we were off on out travels. One morning we stopped. It must have been three days later, we heard shouting, open came the wagon doors and the guard shouted "Roust, Roust". We all got out of the wagons, I could not see the name of the station but it was somewhere in Poland. The columns moved off but we were not paraded through the streets this time, we then arrived at the Prisoner-of-War camp. There was wooden huts and a large brick building. We had arrived at Stalag XXB. Different things flash through your mind, I did notice some other Prisoners-of-War, two or three hundred of them. We were then told to find a place to sleep, once again no food. I am not sure but I think, that under the Geneva Convention, the Germans had to feed us. Benham, Norris and myself followed the other Prisoners-of-War up the stairs. We then entered a large room. In the centre was three tier bunks, it was one large bed but no mattresses and no blankets. It stood in the centre of the room and you could walk right around the bed . It could hold three or four hundred men. We then turned into sleep. Throughout the night we could hear some of the men having nightmares. On falling asleep we were all wondering what did the future have in store for us, if we survived.!

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - Memories of my life born in 1918 to being a soldier in the Second World War PART 2

Posted on: 21 December 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

This is an epic story, well told and full of highly interesting detail. The suffering Robert and his comrades had to endure was in complete disregard of the Geneva Conventions.

Robert says "I am not sure but I think, that under the Geneva Convention, the Germans had to feed us."

Not only had they to feed PoW's, they were obliged to provide rations equivalent to those issued to their own troops.

Article 26 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, signed by Germany in 1929, states:

"The basic daily food rations shall be sufficient in quantity, quality and variety to keep prisoners of war in good health and to prevent loss of weight or the development of nutritional deficiencies. Account shall also be taken of the habitual diet of the prisoners.

The Detaining Power shall supply prisoners of war who work with such additional rations as are necessary for the labour on which they are employed.

Sufficient drinking water shall be supplied to prisoners of war. The use of tobacco shall be permitted.

Prisoners of war shall, as far as possible, be associated with the preparation of their meals; they may be employed for that purpose in the kitchens. Furthermore, they shall be given the means of preparing, themselves, the additional food in their possession.

Adequate premises shall be provided for messing.

Collective disciplinary measures affecting food are prohibited.

...

Article 28

Canteens shall be installed in all camps, where prisoners of war may procure foodstuffs, soap and tobacco and ordinary articles in daily use. The tariff shall never be in excess of local market prices. The profits made by camp canteens shall be used for the benefit of the prisoners; a special fund shall be created for this purpose. The prisoners' representative shall have the right to collaborate in the management of the canteen and of this fund. ... "

Clearly, from the very start, they were in contravention of this, although later, when increasing numbers of German prisoners fell into Allied hands, conditions did somewhat improve.

Peter

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